5 things to focus on to build a zero-carbon construction sector

Stephen Good, CEO of the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre, outlines five areas to focus on in 2022 to build a zero-carbon construction sector

The Covid-19 pandemic aside, the theme that best characterised 2021 was arguably sustainability. The need to tackle climate change through energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions was one of the most prominent talking points of the year, culminating in the UN’s COP26 conference in Glasgow.

We have the tools and expertise to make a difference; projects such as NearHome, aimed at bringing workspaces closer to people’s homes, and the homegrown timber housing unit displayed at COP26 demonstrate this. However, this needs to be accelerated, scaled up and mainstreamed. Here are some key challenges.

1.Focusing on procuring for value

Sustainable construction is supported by responsible procurement, from choosing materials low in embodied carbon to selecting contractors competent in meeting energy-efficient approaches such as Passivhaus or EnerPHit. Ultimately, decisionmakers need to start thinking about the overall value and long-term impact of the services and assets they are buying, not just the lowest up-front cost.

2.More holistic policies

The Scottish Government has developed a number of key policy and regulatory guides. The Heat in Buildings Strategy, Housing to 2040, and changes due to come into effect in 2022 regarding the Building Standards’ Section 6: Energy all address critical aspects of the built environment’s journey to net zero. However, there are some areas where comprehensive policy is still a work in progress, particularly around retrofit and embodied carbon. Developing robust and more holistic policy frameworks that are effective across the entire built environment ecosystem, and which join up policy objectives across multiple portfolios, would encourage industry buy-in and investment.

3. A focus on green skills

There is a big challenge ahead in developing a workforce that can meet the requirements of a zero-carbon built environment. The entire system – from schools, colleges and universities to every size of business taking on new apprentices, as well as re-skilling and upskilling the current workforce – needs to be rewired to deliver the scale of green skills required.

4. More local supply chains

The challenges around the availability and price of materials look set to continue. The Brexit-driven demise of CE marking for safety, health and environmental protection has caused further uncertainty, even though the scheme is due to be replaced by an alternative UKCA marking process at the end of 2022. For Scotland and the rest of the UK, it highlights an opportunity for local supply chains and the greater use of sustainable and regenerative materials such as homegrown timber. That said, there is still some way to go before the demand for new and innovative materials drives the level of change we need to see.

5. Developments in modern methods of construction

We’re likely to see a renewed focus on digital transformation and modern methods of construction – particularly advanced off-site manufacturing – ahead of the 2024 zero-emissions heat standard for new buildings. This was one of the core aims of the Scottish Government’s Housing to 2040 strategy. Details for the offsite sector in a national Net Zero Offsite strategy for affordable homes should be out in early 2022.

To create a legacy from COP26, good intentions and pledges need to become concrete action – and 2022 has to be the year that this happens. As one construction industry expert put it to me: “It is too late for more trials and prototypes – we need to start seeing more mainstream, commercial-scale applications of low- and zero-carbon construction processes and products.”

For more details, visit cs-ic.org

Image credit | iStock

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